Commentary / Japan

Can Abe show global vision?

Japan can't afford to let China fill the leadership vacuum that Trump has created

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be relieved to jet away from the uncomfortable hothouse that Tokyo has become after his party’s humbling defeat to Gov. Yuriko Koike’s upstarts. In Germany, he will be welcomed as one of the Group of 20 leaders entrusted with dealing with unprecedented world problems, in which North Korea looms dangerously large again with yet another missile launch on Tuesday, American Independence Day, with the provocative — false for the moment — boast that Pyongyang can now hit anywhere in the world.

To Japan, North Korea is a real and imminently dangerous issue. Germany and other European countries are more concerned about the over-spill of nasty wars in the Middle East, and other countries have myriad concerns of survival and worry what to do about the typhoon called U.S. President Donald Trump.

Even North Korea’s threatened neighbors cannot agree on how to deal with Pyongyang. New South Korean President Moon Jae-in echoes Beijing in calling for talks, but 60 years of history are littered with talks that have failed to reach a peace treaty. China aspires to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But Kim Jong Un’s missile launches show what he thinks of talks and getting rid of nuclear weapons.

Japan’s weak hope is to get more countries engaged, but without China or indeed Russia, which are busy trading with North Korea, that seems forlorn. Defense Minister Tomomi Inada publicly pledged to back Trump, whatever he decided to do, including a military strike.

This leads to the nagging and persistent question whether Japan understands how dangerous are the times we live in. Abe is gambling by putting slavish faith in Trump, who is dangerously shaking the global kaleidoscope.

Trump got due publicity by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. But the issue was the way he did it: his words, his tone, his braggadocio, his defiance in effect told the rest of the world to go to hell. Serious political pundits from the United States to China believe that America’s withdrawal offers the opportunity for China to claim the global leadership that Trump has thrown away.

In memoriam: Washington’s leadership that helped the world back on its feet after the destruction and dust and ashes of war. Major cities of Japan, Germany and much of Europe were a rubbled wasteland. The Marshall Plan and similar aid to Japan injected billions to restore economic hope to devastated friends and enemies.

The U.S., helped by the United Kingdom, promoted a new rules-based international order, with the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund at the heart of a global system which gradually expanded to include all countries of the world. To the chagrin of the U.K., France and colonial powers, Washington promoted decolonization, which has seen U.N. members swell to 193 countries today.

The contrast is sharp between U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s dream for the world, and Trump’s blinkered “America First” vision — or, equally pertinently, China’s self-centered realpolitik. Kennedy proclaimed after the Cuban missile crisis: “Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women — not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”

Trump hardly cares about the world. His fervent supporter, the Wall Street Journal, proclaimed, “The world is not a global community.” In Trump’s eyes there is no rules-based system, just a kaleidoscope of constant dealmaking. That way lies chaos, in which the weakest, including Trump’s core voters, get ground into the dust.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is staking his claim for global leadership: massive Chinese investment in the Americas, Africa and Asia, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the “Belt and Road” initiative and the declaration with the European Union supporting Paris all underline China’s ambitions.

But China alone should not map out the route for a new global world. It is too dangerous to swap one hegemon for another. Beijing protests it is not hegemonic, but its actions suggest that the ancient “Middle Kingdom” attitude to the rest of the world prevails, whereby other countries must bow and pay tribute. Building and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea shout that China is an expanding imperial power. Xi’s suppression of anything resembling dissent domestically is ominous, as is his determination to bring recalcitrant Hong Kong to heel.

Japan is the most vulnerable of the major countries, especially if Beijing rules the world. Having established its imperium in the South China Sea, Beijing will likely turn to the East China Sea, using its fishing fleet, civilian vessels and coast guard to “win the war before any battle is fought,” as Sun Tzu advocated. China’s rise rests on its economic prowess, and on strident nationalism that has avenging Japan’s colonialism in its sights.

Abe’s dilemma is whether to challenge and engage China, with the risk of military clash, or to accept Beijing’s domination and pay tribute. Classically, you escape a dilemma by going between the horns, and Japan has a way through, which also means avoiding getting caught on China’s horns — or America’s. Abe must know that constant deal-maker Trump will have a great deal for Japan, including doubling defense spending and slashing Japan’s trade surplus with the U.S.

Japan’s way forward is to be the prophet of a new global order, not the hegemony of Washington or Beijing. Unfortunately that requires ideas and diplomatic outreach probably beyond the imagination of politicians trapped in the myths of their misty island (similar to Little Englanders in that other misty island offshore Europe).

Tokyo has to develop a world vision, think outside the box, work with and beyond the United Nations, make durable alliances with Europe, India, Africa, Latin America that go beyond leaders’ visits and promises of money, and offer proper friendship with South Korea and China. Unfortunately for Japan, making Japan a “normal” country in the 21st century requires imagination and understanding that transcends Article 9, and indeed Article 9 may be a stumbling block of the fog of war.

Kevin Rafferty has lived and worked in six Asian countries, and reported from Washington during six administrations.